Soon every publisher will have a Grand Theft Also to call its own. Spawning from the fertile belly of Rockstar North's uber franchise we've already seen Take-Two (Mafia), Sony (Getaway), Activision (True Crime), VU Games (Simpsons Hit & Run, Scarface) and LucasArts (Mercenaries) score some of their biggest hits in years on the back of mission-based drivin' n' shootin', so it's hardly a massive shock to see some other publishing giants casting envious glances over their neighbour's fences.
Somewhat late to the party but no less determined is THQ, who debuted Volition's hiphop-flavoured gang warfare effort Saint's Row for the first time last week, promising a true next generation interpretation of The Genre That Everyone Seems To Have An Unquenchable Thirst For.
Playing to the crowd
Putting to one side that it's yet another third-person shooter/driving game with gang warfare overtones ("there's a huge market of people who want to experience this type of gaming," THQ rightly points out) it is the first next generation title in this genre, being as it is for Xbox 360 only and full of the latest graphical frippery, no load delays, advanced vehicle damage modelling and AI techniques. Okay, so originality clearly went out of the window, but let's hear them out.
In terms of pushing the technology THQ is certainly proud of the technological achievements by Volition, one of its internally owned studios, and the chaps behind the Red Faction games and the dark comic portrayal of The Punisher (not to mention Descent, if you go back far enough). "Because Volition is internally owned we can ask them to develop the tech and explore certain areas, and it has been working on developing its own proprietary tech for three years," says THQ's Mickey Torode.
"It's been well positioned to experiment in this, and one of the lessons was you can't have a linear script in an openworld game," he argues, pointing to the AI and associated Respect systems by way of example.
Is that AI or AIEE?
"Every character in the game has their own AI. For example, depending on what you've done in the past and your respect levels, if they meet you some will run away in fear, some will give money, and as your notoriety rises the aggressive guys will react different. If you're driving along some AI will stop and try and run you off the road." He also paints another scenario of complete choice and consequence. You could, for example, go into a store and buy an item. Alternatively you could pull a gun on them and steal it, or even wait until everyone's gone home and rob the store under the cover of darkness.
But it doesn't end there. You also have to think about who sees you and whether they'll recognise you, so if you're stupid enough to break into somewhere at night in your gang colours and someone sees you, the owners and associated characters will know you've broken in and react to you negatively from there on and lose respect. Break in in disguise, or have that disguise rumbled, and the outcome will be different again. It's a game with consequences.
In terms of the graphics, it's another area Volition and THQ are keen to trumpet, with many cutting edge features giving the game a more realistic look and feel. The Havok 3 physics, for example, give the game a weight and depth when driving around or generally knocking into everyday objects, while the ragdoll effects mean everyone reacts convincingly during combat and the like. Volition also promises extensive car damage modelling meaning vehicles will bend and crumple when they hit obstacles and breakdown to their component parts during an explosion. Wheels will roll down the road and become objects that you need to genuinely avoid.
Caught in the headlights
The dynamic lighting, meanwhile, gives each scene a more rounded, believable atmosphere, with small touches like the muzzle flash, or car headlights added, while the use of next gen shaders adds the finishing touch. With crafted, well animated character modelling that screams "Bling" from every Burberry pore it's a stylistic look completely at odds with anything THQ (or Volition for that matter) has attempted before. It's about as far away from Martian mining disasters as you could imagine.
The level of personalisation that you can add to the game will also no doubt resonate with many in the target audience, too, with a bewildering array of customisations you can add to your car, not to mention the ability to completely personalise your look and even create your own custom character to play the game with. It's very much all about Bling, but you knew that anyway. "There are hundreds of different options," we're reliably informed. "You can customise your character with clothes, jewellery, cars and weapons. The more style you add to your character, the more respect you command." As Aretha Franklin didn't say: R-E-S-P-E-C-ME.
But enough bling/technobabble about how swanky Saint's Row looks. What about the game itself? First of all, the game's set in fictional American urban surroundings of Still Water (no, not inspired by hooded-top central Blue Water. This is a place loosely based around Illinois, we're assured). You play as a low level member of the 3rd Street Saints, "a gang trying desperately to take back the streets from three rival gangs that hold the city".
And it’s the rival gang element that forms the rock of the game's determinedly non-linear sandbox structure, where players get to fight their way to control all three gang territories in any order to gain overall supremacy before getting to take on the corrupt officialdom. Under attack on all four sides of the map, it's ultimately up to you to consolidate and earn enough respect to work your way up the ladder up four levels of your gang to become the Kingpin.
Set in what THQ calls a "living, breathing environment," the overall map is split into 35 different territories, held by either the Rollers, Cardinals or the Vice ([groan] come on chaps, try harder) Kings. "It's an openwold game with no constraints, so if you want to attack a certain point of the city you can," Torode explains. "As you take them over your rank rises. You get their business, and when you finish the mission that part of city turns green on the map, but the way you take over bits of the city is entirely up to you."
As we touched on before, much of the game is about earning respect, and that can be gained in all manner of ways. "Everything you do; the clothes you wear, how you drive, how you walk, how violent you are, affects the Respect score," he explains, "and ratings unlock the mission. Certain things will affect score - if all you do is shoot people it'll be tough. You don't have to do the mission; in fact if you're good enough you can win the game without playing the missions - for example you could just arrange races and build respect that way. It's up to you." It's certainly an interesting contrast to the GTA way of doing things where entire areas of the game world are effectively blocked off until you slog through dozens of missions. Interestingly, the incentive to building up your respect score is always there, with other gangs free to attack you until you make the effort to build it up to 100 per cent.
Calm down dear, it's not a real man
But, according to our man at THQ, it's not all drivin' n' shootin' n' lootin' n' pimpin' with flamethrowers, snipers, "and then some" around a city "roughly the size of Vice City". There's, oooh, so much more. "The sheer range of activities is awesome: insurance fraud by injuring yourself, tagging, pimping, picking up call girls, driving celebs around, avoiding the press... it's great."
Anything else? Ah yes, audio. The popular radio concept of GTA has been cribbed somewhat, with "literally hundreds of licensed tracks" across 10 radio stations featuring two humorous talk stations. The thus-far unannounced selection will be "modern day American", but with the reassuring promise of more crowd-pleasing "normal" music, whatever that is. Give us bling gameplay to the sounds of The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Beatles and Arcade Fire, we say. Or not. Believe it or not Neds Atomic Dustbin will be in there, possibly the most anti-Bling musical combo we've ever come across in our entire lives, but, hey, internal music tastes at THQ have to be catered for...
"The radio provides important clues," he adds. "You'll hear adverts that get you a special deal in shops, or a talk show might discuss the location of a one off race meet. In the Carnell story you might hear news report of shipping activity and be able to get down there and pick up something cool."
To delight the persistent players (which, let's face it, you have to be to really get the most out of sandbox games), unlockables also figure in the mix, with licensed tracks to discover, as well as jewellery, designer clothes, tattoos and other "cool toys for your crib". Can we just have it on the record that our house will never, ever, be known as our 'crib'? Thanks. We'll move on now.
Online will also figure large and loud, we're told: "We've taken on board that co-op is the key thing." Scanning the presentation double quick we spotted a deathmatch-style mode called 'Big Ass Chains' where the idea is to get their chain and take it to a pawn shop, while another called 'Blinged Out Ride' is one for the Daily Mail readers - a drive-by shooting mode with the idea to destroy other cars, get the money, pimp up you car and come back to the moshpit. (We thought moshpits were where hairy Neds fans lurked...). Finally we also clocked a mode called Protect The Pimp, with the idea simply to try to protect The Man while a rival gang tries to take him out. Sounds like your average night out in Harlesden or Kensal Rise...
No release date has been announced for Saint's Row as yet, but we're expecting the game to arrive before Christmas, so expect a more concrete impression of THQ's big Xbox 360 hope in the months ahead.